Leading the Way through Cultural Generational Differences in the Workplace


It’s no surprise that today’s workplace has become a melting pot of employees from diverse backgrounds working toward a common goal. Leaders face a “divergent convergence” when these contrasting cultures or generations meet. To foster an atmosphere that promotes collaboration, trust and respect, leaders must recognize and understand these differences and be willing to adjust their leadership style when necessary.

Cultural Differences

Cultural differences routinely create a divergent convergence. An individual’s upbringing, customs and norms make up one’s cultural characteristics and individual perspective. These views typically occur naturally within one’s own country or region. However, cultural differences can produce major controversies on a more global scale.

“One of the biggest divergent convergences is with the East and West coming together in the same workplace,” explained Dr. Robin Roberts, Assistant Professor for the College of Business at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University - Worldwide. “These two areas have a completely different mindset, yet are now working together.”

Business practices in China and the United States exemplify these contrasting ways of thinking. Workers in China often put the group ahead of their personal desires, while U.S. employees celebrate individualism. Additionally, communication between workers and management tends to be more accessible in the U.S. In China, workers are less likely to challenge, disagree or communicate directly with management. While neither mentality is right or wrong, leading a team of workers with these varying views can be a challenge.

“Regardless of the differences between cultures … once an individual adopts a leadership mode, they absolutely believe this is the mode in which all the world operates,” explained Dr. Roberts.

Generation Gaps

Technology is the largest contributor to generational differences within the workplace.

“Currently, there is an entire generation that does not know anything other than technology,” shared Dr. Roberts.

These “digital natives” grew up with daily access to the internet, mobile phones and computers. Generations prior to the digital age are considered “digital immigrants” and have had to acclimate to this new technology. These immigrant generations have learned new lingo and have even shifted the way they think.

“There are now anxiety disorders that were not present in human society before technology,” explained Dr. Roberts. “Technology has changed our flight or fight organ. It has shifted to become anxious if we are not answering emails, texts, and social media. This means we have a generation of people who have an entirely different brain function.”

These differences in generational thinking and technological knowledge create complications in developing a collaborative working environment. Successful leaders are sensitive to these differences and find ways to draw from a team’s strengths to overcome any weaknesses.

Overcoming Diversity Issues

By developing key competencies, a modern leader can build team rapport in today’s diverse global environment.

“It's becoming critical that leaders learn the technical aspect of understanding human beings,” shared Dr. Roberts. “We are in a unique place where human resource development and talent management are technical skills; they’re no longer soft skills.”

Leaders need constant development to unmask their own unconscious and conscious biases and see the divergent convergence in their own workplace. Leaders can become more self-aware through activities such as leadership inventories or professional development courses

“Leadership starts with the first level of leading, which starts with yourself,” explained Dr. Roberts.
“Once you know yourself, you can begin to visualize what others are experiencing as well.”

Looking to enhance your leadership skills?  Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University offers a Bachelor of Science in Leadership, along with a Master of Science in Leadership. Both programs prepare students for leadership roles with extensive training in critical thinking, communication, culture and diversity and much more.